My toes are freezing!
January 24, 2011 12:37 PM   Subscribe

My toes get really cold when I go outside, despite my best efforts to insulate them. I'd like to make it to spring with all ten of them intact.

It's just my toes. My hands stay warm in my pockets, my nose and ears are fine. But even with two pairs of Smartwool socks and winter boots, my toes are half-numb if I'm outside for more than a few minutes. Once I'm inside, they take a lot of time and wiggling to warm back up. It's gotten to the point where I've tried turning the blowdryer on them before I leave the house, with no success, and I've pondered putting my socks in the oven.

If I'm indoors with cold feet, soaking my feet in a hot bath helps immensely. So does vigorous exercise. I'd rather not have to do either of these whenever I leave the house, however. I'm going to pick up some instant foot-warmer packets, if I can find them, but that seems like a little bit of a waste and I've heard they're not very effective.

Is there something else I'm missing? I'd like a solution that's obtainable today, easy to do, and inexpensive - I'd settle for two of the three.

(And yes, I'll bring this up at my next doctor appointment, which I'll be scheduling in the near future.)
posted by Metroid Baby to Health & Fitness (36 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The handwarmer/footwarmer packets are wonderfully effective, but only if they're not in thick socks -- they need air in order to keep the reaction going. I've had decent luck with getting them very hot and then popping them in my socks under my toes, but the effect dies out rather quickly.
posted by vorfeed at 12:42 PM on January 24, 2011

Best answer: Firstly, make sure your boots and two pairs of wool socks aren't cutting off circulation to your little toesies!
posted by Grither at 12:42 PM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

The Vermont Country Store has a cream that warms fingers and toes.
posted by jgirl at 12:48 PM on January 24, 2011

Seconding Grither.

Also, you can try flexing your toes inside your boots to make sure they're getting circulation.

One other thing I've done is warm my feet up a lot (with warm water, etc.), then dry them well, before putting on socks & boots, to kind of "charge up" the heat reserve.
posted by amtho at 12:48 PM on January 24, 2011

Definitely make sure your toes have enough room to wiggle in your boots. They make wool socks with a goofy little pocket over the toes that you can slip a hand/foot warmer into. But regular toe warmers work fine--they have a sticky side which you can adhere to your sock.
posted by gumtree at 12:50 PM on January 24, 2011

Best answer: Instead of two pairs of wool socks, try using a material that wicks away moisture as the inner sock. If your feet get sweaty before you leave the house they'll be freezing within minutes once you get outside.
posted by TooFewShoes at 12:50 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

What Grither said. Two pairs of wool socks seems like a lot to squish into one boot. If you want your feet to be warm, cutting off the blood supply is counterproductive.

Also, make sure the rest of your body is warm. If your core is cold, your body will cut off the supply to your extremities. Long underwear is your friend. Also, sweaters, toques, scarves...

Also-also, making your body accustomed to being extra-warm (hot baths, etc.) is not helping; it's just going to cause your body to get extra freaked out by the cold. Save the exercise for when you're outside.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:54 PM on January 24, 2011

Best answer: I've found that a pair of thin polyester dress socks under a pair of winter wool socks works best. You do need room to wiggle your toes while they're in your boots, and make sure your feet aren't getting sweaty. This has worked best for me when skiing, snowshoeing, or otherwise spending a lot of time outside in the snow.
posted by hootenatty at 12:55 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a kid I used to put some kind of hand lotion ( actually my mother's) on our feet and toes when we went to the pond ice skating. It acted as sort of a barrier against the cold. It also helped in that I was able to wiggle them more than without the stuff. I'd experiment with different things. Even go so far as to try Vaseline or something similar. If you can wiggle them every so often before they get too cold, it should help. It's the circulation ( or lack thereof rather) that makes it worse. Another thing, we found that two thinner pair ( but not too thin) of socks worked better than one thick pair. But the winter socks they have nowadays are probably much better than those of yesteryear ( all wool).
posted by Taurid at 12:59 PM on January 24, 2011

Some other ideas:

Ginger tea works well for me when I'm faced with this problem, I assume because ginger's a vasodilator. Candied/crystalized ginger root might work too if you eat enough of it.

I've also heard of people sprinkling cayenne pepper in their socks to improve circulation, but can't vouch for this remedy. I've seen cayenne pepper as a component in creams/ointments for arthritis, so maybe something like that would have the same effect if you'd rather not use culinary spices in your socks.
posted by Knicke at 12:59 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing the bits about circulation and wearing a wicking sock liner rather than two pairs of wool socks.

Also, make sure you are wearing boots that insulate. Not all boots do. I used to have a horrible time before I started wearing boots with gore-tex linings in them. The damp cold air would just go right through anything that didn't have it.
posted by strixus at 1:01 PM on January 24, 2011

Best answer: I've been dealing with Raynaud's disease since my late teens, so this is a problem terribly familiar to me. Once my feet get cold (and turn into white, numb patches), there is basically no warming them up until I can get indoors and stick them in warm water. But I grew up in northern Minnesota and spend a lot of time outdoors all winter long in Seattle, so I've had to figure some things out.

For what it's worth, I find wiggling my toes does essentially nothing. I do find the combination of a light wicking sock inside a Smartwool sock to be pretty reliable, as far as socks go. Don't lace your boots too tightly — give the warmth a little room to circulate. Foot warmer packets are something I use if I know I am not going to be moving around at all, just sitting outside, but they're kind of a pain and not really very cost-effective.

Anyway, I mention Raynaud's disease in case it sounds familiar to you, especially since it's terribly common among women. There is more you can do than just layering up on socks! Regular exercise (not necessarily outdoors) has helped me a lot, along with going off hormonal BCP for awhile.
posted by adiabat at 1:05 PM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Old New England folk wisdom says that, when layering, its important to vary materials too. So maybe 1 pair smartwool, then a different fabric for the 2nd pair of socks?
posted by .kobayashi. at 1:07 PM on January 24, 2011

Nthing circulation. Got wide feet? I can go for mile runs outside in my running shoes which fit well. But in narrow basketball shoes, I'm running around on cement blocks for the first few games because my feet are ice cold. Indoors. Are your boots narrow?
posted by cashman at 1:08 PM on January 24, 2011

I haven't tried this but I've been ensured wearing a small plastic bag around your sock will keep your feet warm. It may become smelly though.
posted by charles kaapjes at 1:13 PM on January 24, 2011

Have you tried insulating your legs more, so the blood flowing into your feet is warmer? I can't say I've noticed it helping my feet per se, but lately I've taken to wearing track pants or flannel pajama pants underneath blue jeans or slacks, and it makes a big difference in how warm I feel overall.
posted by shponglespore at 1:17 PM on January 24, 2011

If you look for heated socks (often marketed as hunters' socks), you'll find lots of options for battery-powered heated socks or socks with a pocket for a heating pad like gumtree mentioned.
posted by Zed at 1:23 PM on January 24, 2011

Response by poster: So maybe doubling up on the Smartwool is not so smart after all. I hadn't thought of that. I'll revert to single socks or layer with a thinner sock and see if that makes a difference. I will report back with the results!

I've wondered about Raynaud's since my feet tend to get cold easily in winter, though they haven't been this bad. I'll bring it up with the doc.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:29 PM on January 24, 2011

I had a bout with Raynaud's Syndrome (as it was then called) in college, and I wore silk sock and glove liners. They really retained the heat, and were thin enough that they fit nicely under my regular socks and gloves without constricting circulation.
posted by Dolukhanova at 1:47 PM on January 24, 2011

i have raynaud's too ... hot water and smartwool socks don't help at all. i even tried diabetic compression socks - nothing.

my acupuncturist gave me some herbs/pills called dang gui si ni tang wan - for "warming frigid extremities." if you have an acupuncturist or are near a chinese herb place, check it out. it's the only thing that helps me. (my toes are icy right now, i should take my own advice.) as a very last resort, leg cuffs that inflate/deflate to promote circulation totally get it done - but i can't imagine how much they might cost.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 1:49 PM on January 24, 2011

I have a condition called pernio. I had frostbite as a kid on my feet and now they don't respond well to cold. They get cold a lot more easily than the rest of me does and it's very hard to warm them up once they are cold. Even if the rest of me is comfortable and warm my feet can be painfully cold. They don't look anything like the pictures on the page I linked to; they look normal more or less, maybe a little bit white.

I haven't really found a solution. I take slippers with me whenever I go to someone's house in the winter because otherwise I'll have very cold feet for hours. I do sometimes warm them up like you do, with a hair dryer or warm water. This probably doesn't really help you much and I'm sorry; but maybe if you have a similar condition your doctor will have some suggestions for you. No matter what you've got I sympathize .. it's hard to feel happy when your feet are really cold.
posted by Kangaroo at 2:05 PM on January 24, 2011

I've had Raynaud's syndrome for many years, and I've tried all the tricks and remedies. These "Cozy Feet" battery-heated shoe inserts are my favorite. They're fairly cumbersome, and they eat a set of AA batteries in 4-6 hours, but they absolutely work. Without them, being outside in winter at all would be impossible.

Also, it's helpful to put (cream) antiperspirant on your feet so they don't get sweaty, 'cause even a little bit of sweat = chill. Silk liner socks are great; Coolmax or polypropelyne are also very good.
posted by Corvid at 2:14 PM on January 24, 2011

Best answer: If you need to spend time in the cold, look into insulated boots. Visit REI, LLBean or some other outdoor sport store and get recommendations on a pair of super warm socks. Yes, you do need some room for the wool socks to create air pockets for warmth. Feet perspire, so you need socks that wick, as well as stay warm as they get a bit damp. Putting your boots somewhere warm before you go out helps, too. The chemical warming packets are effective and not too spendy; my son skis, and loves them.
posted by theora55 at 2:25 PM on January 24, 2011

Wool is wicking, and it stays warm even when wet, so it's a good choice as a next-to-your-skin layer. If there's enough room in your boots (or to wear indoors, as slippers) and you know someone who knits, thrummed socks might be good. I can't find any for sale online, but they're basically like thrummed mittens. The roving (wool) on the inside felts to protect from the cold and wet.
posted by OLechat at 4:05 PM on January 24, 2011

Others have covered the angle of making sure you're not cutting off the circulation .... but what about your boots? "Winter boots" covers a lot of territory ... It could mean waterproof/leather hiking boots, or it could mean awesome down-lined boots. If you haven't already, I'd recommend trying the later - my pair is so warm that I can't wear them unless it's below freezing, and I don't even bother with the wool socks.
posted by Metasyntactic at 4:53 PM on January 24, 2011

Insulating insoles might help as well. Make sure your boots have enough room so that your toes can wiggle though - too tight will make you colder. I've been living in a pair of knee high fleece lined boots this winter w/long johns and smartwool socks - on coldest days smartwool over lightweight liners and that keeps me warm even in bitter cold.
posted by leslies at 5:27 PM on January 24, 2011

What kind of boots do you have? You probably just need better boots (i.e. very well insulated, waterproof, and very unfashionable).
posted by ssg at 5:27 PM on January 24, 2011

Seconding the thought that two layers of thick wool may be too much.

I get the same problem, and I've found that one pair of thick wool over just plain athletic socks works fine. Or the thick wool over thinner socks. That's always been fine.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:47 PM on January 24, 2011

I've also heard of people sprinkling cayenne pepper in their socks to improve circulation, but can't vouch for this remedy.

I worked one summer in a blast freezer that was 25 below zero F, I currently live in Winnipeg. I can vouch for cayenne but rather than sprinkle it into your socks you should massage some into your toes. Start off with a smaller amount and wash your hands afterward. When I worked in the blast freezer everyone was issued rubber boots but none of the people that had worked there for a while wore them - they wore footwear that breathed. When I switched my footwear to canvas shoes my cold toe problem went away and I no longer had to use cayenne. I would say that plastic bags would exacerbate your problem because of condensation - your feet still give off moisture even when cold.
posted by vapidave at 7:21 PM on January 24, 2011

Another Raynaud's sufferer here... have you tried the HotHands hand and foot warmers? (I have small hands and the foot warmers work fine for my hands. They might actually be the same size.) You can usually find them at stores like Walmart, Kmart, etc.
posted by IndigoRain at 7:40 PM on January 24, 2011

When we were kids, my grandma used to put old bread bags over our socks and then the boots would go on over that. Our feet were definitely warm albeit a bit sweaty. And of course it does not look very nice.
posted by katyggls at 8:09 PM on January 24, 2011

In Outward Bound, they teach you this: "If your feet are cold, put on a hat."

Your body is a system, a well designed system. Circulating blood performs many, many functions beyond the obvious of delivering oxygen to tissues. One of the things it does is to circulate heat.

But for the ends of the limbs, if too much heat is sent out there, to be lost, it's possible for the whole organism to become too cold to stay alive. So the main artery going down your leg lies right next to the main vein coming back. As the blood travels down the artery, the blood in the vein right next to it is colder, and heat is transferred away. By the time the blood reaches your foot, it's cold. Then it gives up its oxygen (and nutrients) and picks up a load of carbon dioxide, and heads back up. Now it's the other way around.

All along that vein, it's right next to an artery which is warmer. The blood is heated back up again, and by the time it reaches your hip it's back to body temperature.

The blood makes a full trip, but the heat doesn't. It's a marvelous mechanism to prevent you from freezing to death, but it also makes you uncomfortable because your feet are cold. (Better uncomfortable than dead, of course.)

The degree to which this happens is a function of how much your body is trying to conserve head. And that's why the hat. This heat-conservation trick works on both legs and both arms, but it doesn't happen for the head because the brain needs to be warm to work properly, and if the brain dies then nothing else matters. Thus the heat regulation mechanism must provide a lot of heat to the head, even if it's being lost at a high rate.

So if you're not wearing a hat, you're losing a lot of heat from your head, and that leaves less heat available for everything else. Putting on a hat makes your head lose less heat, which means there's more available for the rest of the body, and the heat regulation mechanisms have the luxury of sending more to your feet and hands.

And that's why putting on a hat makes your feet warmer.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:51 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Rats. " trying to conserve head." should have been " trying to conserve heat."
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:51 PM on January 24, 2011

Best answer: I have a "Stormy Kromer" style waxed-canvas hat with a thick fleece lining. When I wear it, I can venture out into sub-zero weather with just a sweatshirt and jeans. When I don't wear it, I get cold wearing a sweatshirt plus insulated work jacket plus insulated pants in 20 degree weather.

So, yes, make the parts of the body warm that the body would otherwise trying to be sending the most heat to - That means head and torso. Toss on an extra layer of fleece under your jacket, and get a Stormy Kromer or Mad Bomber style hat. The body will then relax, and let more blood (and therefore heat) into your fingers and toes.

Also, remember how wool is insulating your feet - it's a poor conductor of heat, but it's also trapping zillions of tiny little airpockets, which are even worse conductors of heat. If you squish the wool too much (by adding an extra pair of thick socks), it will be colder than one super-fluffy pair. Also, any moisture at all will be very uncomfortable - a wicking layer, like thin acrylic dress socks (NOT cotton, which acts as a sponge) inside your super fluffy wool socks will only do you good.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:17 AM on January 25, 2011

Get some toe socks, then put a layer of wool socks over them. The toe warmer packets work really well, as long as you stick them to the outside of your outer sock layer so they can breathe & stay warm.

Also, you can put some baby powder in your bottom sock to dry up any moisture that would make you colder.
posted by cheerwine at 10:33 AM on January 25, 2011

Response by poster: I gotta say, when I first saw Grither's answer I was all "shyeah right of course my toes are getting enough room for circulation," but losing the second pair has helped immensely. My boots are a size larger than my usual shoe size and can comfortably handle double-socking, but I guess this combo is a little too thick.

The boots in question are from Columbia; they're waterproof and I believe they're supposed to be insulated but I can't find any further info on them since it's an old style. This is their third winter and they've served me well, but they're nearing the end of their life. I'll be going on a search for serious insulated boots for next winter.

The rest of me is well-insulated. I've been double-sweatering, my scarf is alpaca and crazy warm, my coat is long, I always have at least a hat and sometimes a hood on top of that, and occasionally I'll throw on some legwarmers under my pants.

OLechat, it's funny that you mention thrummed socks - I bookmarked a thrumming tutorial at the beginning of winter and have wanted to make some thrummed slippers or mitts or something. I have a bunch of knitting projects that I need to finish first, though, so it might have to wait until next year.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:40 AM on January 25, 2011

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